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Manufacturers' best bet for 2012: Go "all in"

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INDIANAPOLIS - JULY 14: General view of the IZOD IndyCar Series chassis strategy announcement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on July 14 2010 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS - JULY 14: General view of the IZOD IndyCar Series chassis strategy announcement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on July 14 2010 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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So we have the basic outline of the 2012 IndyCar. A standard "safety cell" built by Dallara, with open (within reason) aerodynamic development on key body pieces and open (within specs) engine development.

In theory - or at least in the theory of those who came up with the idea - you have the maximum amount of flexibility allowed within a narrow set of cost constraints. You can theoretically have a field of 33 completely unique-looking racecars at Indianapolis, all powered by a handful of different engines. Variety - without breaking the bank. That's the idea.

The most breathless supporters of the new rules package - or, rather, philosophical package, since the rules haven't been written yet - believe that we'll see a half-dozen different engine builders from big companies to independents, and "aero kit" manufacturers from the aerospace sector. The idea of a Honda twin-turbo V6-powered Dallara squaring off against a Cosworth-powered "Lotus" is one that most people expect; the most optimistic also hope to see a Ford turbo-inline-4 with, say, Boeing bodywork at some point in the future.

It probably isn't going to work that way, though. Obviously we still need to wait and see how the actual rules shake out, but the most reasonable expectation is that the way new manufacturers are going to get involved with the 2012 philosophy is by creating a "total solution" - an engine and aerodynamic package that together would work to offset the built-in advantage enjoyed by Honda and their years of R&D.

It's going to take many millions of dollars to perfect one of these packages - from designing the engine to R&D in the wind tunnels and on the test track - before it's ready for competition. Those millions spent in development make the $70,000 price point at which the aero kit must be made available to all teams look like a child's allowance. It's too much to spend on either one solution or the other - the powerplant or the aerodynamic kit - because the money spent to develop one is wasted if it is paired with a complementary piece of the other that does not exploit the former's advantages to the fullest.

So the best "bang for the buck" will likely involve one big company creating a single, comprehensive package to employ on the Dallara "safety cell." That's not necessarily to say that a single builder will create both engine and aero kit; however, the pieces - whoever builds them - have to be developed, tested and released in tandem in order to produce any sort of competitive value on the track or promotional value off of it. 

Therefore, you're more likely to see a small group of consortia creating integrated IndyCar "platforms" than you are to see a renaissance of the Indianapolis-based parts and tech shops that once serviced the sport. You might see Ford create an engine and aero package that, according to the ICONIC philosophy, would result in a "Ford IndyCar"; or perhaps you could see a "Ferrari IndyCar" or a "Maybach Indy Special." But what you likely won't see is a "Buick Coyote" or a "Chevrolet Swift." It simply doesn't make fiscal or competitive sense.

You will, however, probably see a "Penske Honda" or a "Ganassi Honda" out there - at least in 2012. The way it's looking right now, the soonest a competing engine developer will reach the IndyCar series looks to be 2013, which means that Honda would continue to be the sole engine supplier for the league. But Penske and Ganassi have already spent years developing and building their own custom Dallara parts. The only difference between then and now is that some other teams might get the chance to use them as well.

The upshot to all of this, it should be noted, is that 2012 is not going to be the world-ending catastrophe or gigantic letdown that many cynics believe it will. It's just that the way things shake out will not look quite how many thought it would. Don't count Randy Bernard out, though - he's a hell of a salesman. Odds are good that we'll see one or more big companies decide to go "all in" on the IZOD IndyCar Series when the new rules take effect.